Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Library Chronicles – Part 2

Eugene Public Library (all images by Eckert and Eckert Photography)

This post is the second of three marking the 10th anniversary of the Eugene Public Library. Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc led the team responsible for its design. Find Part 1 of this series of posts here and Part 2 here. 

A Library for the 21st Century
The intervening years between the Library Site Selection Study and the final design of the new Eugene Public Library was a period marked by rapid changes to the role of public libraries. The increasingly widespread use of and fluency with digital technologies during this period threatened to render the traditional library obsolete. At a minimum, the matter of how a facility for the 21st century should function and look like would underlie all of our team's thinking about the design.

The 1990’s and early 2000’s witnessed the construction of a wave of major new libraries, including noteworthy examples in San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Vancouver, and Nashville. The architects for each of these projects surely confronted the same questions we did here in Eugene. Their efforts, though, did not presage radical reinvention of the library paradigm. The project most critics cited as a prominent exception is Seattle’s new downtown branch, designed by Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA; however, its awkward form wasn’t the game-changer its proponents maintained but merely evidence of the architect’s aesthetic and philosophical idiosyncrasies. 

Window bay in West Reading Room; art glass by John Rose

For us, the bottom line was the library patron’s experience. It became the key criterion by which to measure the success of our design, regardless of how the library’s collection might evolve. We believed libraries would always need to offer patrons comfortable places in which to read real paper & ink books. Like Louis Kahn, we regarded the library experience at its essence to be the act of removing a book from the shelf and taking it to a light-filled place to read. Accordingly, we deliberately fashioned distinct reading rooms, tall day-lit volumes that center and ennoble the library patron. We eschewed amorphous, albeit more flexible, spaces that lack spatial definition. 

We realized designing a library for the 21st century needn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bath water. People often fail to recognize how quickly humans adapt to ever-accelerating change. Social media and smart phones are extraordinarily recent inventions; they didn’t even exist when we started work on the new Library in 1998. Our team may have been unwittingly prescient when we chose not to completely abandon the centuries-old typology of the library as a building form—bottom line, we regarded libraries as repositories for information and custodians of cultural heritages, just as generations of architects before us had done. Additionally, we considered libraries essential anchors of community life, highly accessible, welcoming and comfortable “third places.” As if in response to technology’s inexorable advance, we intuited that attempting to somehow match that progress architecturally would be an exercise in futility.

Central rotunda

Traditional or Cutting Edge?
Predictably, the design of the Eugene Public Library sparked a spirited debate about style. Should it look “traditional” or should it push the aesthetic envelope? This wasn’t a merely superficial consideration. Our design response would stand as a representation of Eugene and its citizens. Everyone reacts instinctively to good and bad architecture, and certainly our goal was a good design. But what did this mean? Our professional peers expected a landmark structure, while most laypersons simply wanted something that wouldn’t be ugly. How could we design a library that would appeal to the sensibilities of as many as possible in a diverse community like Eugene? As the architects, what were the articles of faith by which we designed? 

Led by Sandy Howe, our team approached the design of the library with a collaborative mindset. RSA and SBRA were a good match architecturally: both offices shared a similar affinity for well-considered, program and context-driven designs, and a common eye for detail. Neither firm adhered to a signature style, preferring instead to allow the specific circumstances of each particular design problem to elicit an appropriate response. By nature, our team’s ego and personality were not inclined toward bravado; our innate tendency was to rely upon time-tested principles of composition, proportion, and construction in the creation of contemporary space, form, and structure. 

West Reading Room

Our design was bound to disappoint some observers when it was first revealed and, sure enough, it did. We managed paradoxically to dishearten both traditionalists who longed for a grandiose classical edifice (complete with marble lions flanking a grand entrance stair) and those who would settle for no less than a cutting-edge, avant-garde statement. The latter camp included some of our colleagues in the profession, among them local curmudgeon Otto Poticha, FAIA. Doctrinaire modernists, like Grant Seder, AIA emeritus, regarded our impure aesthetic as inauthentic. 2003 AIA-SWO Design Awards jury chair Thom Hacker, FAIA, averred after the library’s completion that its outward expression would be more appropriate to an academic campus rather than a setting downtown.(2) As expected there were also folks who insisted upon an unmistakably Pacific Northwest expression, which we struggled to address. 

What we did focus on was shaping an eminently practical, sustainable (more on this in Part 3), site-responsive, and cost-effective library building. Toward this end, we developed a classically proportioned design that features strong centers and local symmetries, large and small patterns, and proportionate scaling of parts to the whole. We did this without overt historicizing or turning our backs to the possibilities afforded by modern construction technologies. 

We chose brick masonry for the exterior because of its natural beauty, durability, warmth, and human scale. Laid in place by hand, one-by-one, the assembly of brick demanded skilled, authentic craftsmanship to achieve a richly textured form marked by light & shadow, rhythm, and hierarchy. A measure of our success was the Masonry & Ceramic Tile Institute of Oregon’s selection of the library as the recipient of the 2003 Hammurabi Excellence Award. The project would also receive a 2nd Place Award in the 2004 International Excellence in Masonry Awards program from the Mason Contractors Association of America

Today, the question of what style the library is has faded in the bright light of the public’s fondness for the building. Style is secondary to the experiential qualities of a visit to the facility. Eugene’s library is comfortable, welcoming, easy to navigate, and a great place in which to read. I think the taxpayers believe their money was well-spent. 

. . . Next: Part 3: Sustainable Design; Working with the Project’s Best Interest in Mind; A Catalyst for Change; Assessment

(2)     Hacker’s fellow jury members apparently shared his reservations about the design: they did not confer any award upon the Library.

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